Thursday, March 21, 2024

BTRTN: What’s the Slogan on The Blue Hat?

My friend and great Democratic activist Sherrye Henry recently hosted a lunch during which New York advertising legend Sally Minard framed the essential challenge for Joe Biden’s campaign: “What goes on our hat?”  Today, Steve offers his answer.


     They’ve got a hat.                We don’t.

Silly, you say? Who cares?

Their hat says “Make America Great Again.” Trump ripped it off from Ronald Reagan, who used it as his campaign slogan in 1980. It’s not like it’s such a fantastic theme line. It’s generic, offers no hints on how such greatness will be restored, and makes no indication of political leaning, conservative or liberal. If anything, it is a whimper of longing for some mythical bygone era, an exercise in white whining.

It certainly doesn’t have the power or poetry of “Labour Isn’t Working” – the slogan that helped elect Margaret Thatcher, or “It’s Morning Again in America,” the opening words of Ronald Reagan’s brilliant call for re-election in 1984.

But the broader point, however, is rather profound: Democrats are apparently unable to summarize exactly what they stand for – and why you should vote for them -- in a single, pithy, powerful, memorable 5-7 word sentence.

Hat or no hat, that’s important.

Joe Biden did a great job with the State of the Union, but let’s remember that he had the undivided attention of a primetime audience for some ninety minutes, secure in the knowledge that he’d hear prolonged applause for his every utterance, and free to leisurely cover every topic he felt like mentioning.

That’s not how it works in the real world of communication.

In the real world, you get thirty seconds of airtime smack in the middle of a pod of ads for Rav 4s, The Olive Garden, and Ozempic, knowing that your target audience is probably using this time to hit the bathroom, grab a beer, or change a diaper.  It’s worse on social media: maybe you get a half-second of consideration as people zoom-scroll through their Instagram feed.

Smart marketers understand the golden rule of advertising: focus. You must find a singular, powerful message. You must make it simple enough for your target to remember what you stand for, and powerful enough to engender loyalty, advocacy, and action.

I was fortunate to work at ad agencies that understood the power of a great tagline. Martin Puris wrote the line “The Ultimate Driving Machine” for BMW in 1974. Though BMW has changed marketing managers and ad agencies many times since then, the line endures… fifty years after it was written. 

Put a great tagline on the end of your commercials, your digital ads, your direct marketing, and suddenly all of your messaging begins to feel cohesive, consistent, and additive. It multiplies the impact.

So what slogan should go on the blue hat? Today let’s walk through a disciplined methodology to find the right words. You may not agree with the slogan I recommend, but perhaps you’ll feel compelled to join us in urging Democratic leaders to come up with something that is powerful and poetic. We need a hat. Now.

In my years in the advertising business, I would often tell my clients a simple truth: if you want to be the leader in your category, you must find out what is the most important benefit in your category, and then deliver it better than anyone else. Tide cleans. Visa is everywhere you want to be. Coke refreshes you best.

This leads to an equally simple truth about taglines. If you want to develop a great tagline – be it for a box of soap or a Presidential candidate – you must figure out what is the most important benefit to your audience, and why your product delivers it better than anyone else.

For political slogans, you must find a set of words that captures what is most important to the most voters, and prove that you can deliver it.

We’ll begin by first focusing on our target audience. It’s well known now that in our radically polarized politics, the secret to winning elections is galvanizing your party to get out to the polls. Politic operatives constantly use the acronym “GOTV” – get out the vote. Yes, certainly make sure your message resonates with the independents and “persuadables” – but job #1 is to motivate the rank-and-file members of your own party to vote. 

So, first, we need to figure out what is most important to Democrats in this election.

There’s no shortage of possible areas of keen interest… just to run through them in alphabetical order, most lists include the following: climate, democracy on the ballot, the economy, Gaza, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, political polarization, racial injustice, reproductive rights, and Ukraine.

There’s a fair amount of public data on this topic, and frankly the answers can vary significantly depending on how the question is asked. No matter which survey you look at, all these issues are important to some degree. But the secret of effective communication is focus. What is most important?

Look long and hard at the available data, and three issues emerge.

Not surprisingly, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Democrats – and even more so, independents – view the health of the economy to be of primary importance.  Cause for concern: despite all the signs that the economy is roaring, the long tail of inflation is still dragging down the Biden administration’s approval ratings on this critical issue. It is essential that Biden’s communications program makes an aggressive case for his stewardship of the economy.

A second vital issue is “preserving democracy.” This has surged in recent years to the top of concerns among Democrats, and is certain to only grow more critical as Donald Trump ramps up his authoritarian rhetoric. Our slogan must frame the issue in the election in the starkest terms: Democrats will ensure the future of democracy in our nation, Republicans will not.  

There are a cluster of social issues that are important to Democrats: climate, gun safety, civil rights. But the third issue for Democrats to focus on is reproductive rights: it has been to a proven to be a huge motivator for Democrats to “get out the vote” in every election since Dobbs.  Republicans may have finally gotten their wish when SCOTUS reversed Roe – but they are discovering that it is a toxic issue at the ballot box. Democrats must make abortion rights the third major focus of their campaign.

Let’s sum up: we need our communications program to squarely align Democrats with the preservation of democracy, to link democracy to a healthy economy, and to convey that Democrats are more aligned with majority opinion of Americans on the major social issues of our day than Republicans.

No tag line can do all that. But a good tagline will serve as powerful and memorable platform that unifies all television advertising, digital marketing, and fundraising efforts around these themes.

Here’s our idea: 

 “Keep Democracy Working for Americans.”

Here’s why I like it.

Keep..:” Starting with the word “keep” signals stay the course, not change. Most elections – and certainly this one -- are a choice between an incumbent and a challenger. Joe Biden is running for re-election…our slogan must be an endorsement of “four more years,” not a call for a new direction. “Keep” is a solid opening word.

“Keep Democracy…”: The combination of “Keep” and “Democracy” means that the Democrats are the party that is committed to keeping democracy intact. It creates a sharp contrast with a Republican candidate who will take a wrecking ball to our institutions, who openly promises to be a “dictator,” and who cozies up to anti-democratic authoritarians around the globe.

“Keep Democracy Working…”: The word “Working” may be the most important word in the slogan. It conveys that democracy is not mere theoretical ideal, but it is the very reason our economy thrives, people have jobs, and the majority should rule on major social issues.

The greatest danger of our time is that authoritarians become most attractive when government appears ineffective. Authoritarians like to say that they can destroy the gridlock and get things done. Democrats must thoroughly rebut this argument.

Start with the proof: run ads that communicate that Joe Biden’s administration has gotten a helluva lot more done through bipartisan democracy that Donald Trump ever did in his administration. Donald Trump never delivered on his single biggest promise… to “build a wall,” let alone that “Mexico would pay for.” Trump declared “infrastructure week” twice a month, but Joe Biden got the bill passed.

Then, bring on the numbers: record jobs, lowest unemployment, stock market peaks. Democrats tend to shy away from bragging about the DJIA, thinking it is elitist – somehow failing to realize that 41% of Americans have 401k accounts that have experienced real growth on Biden’s watch.

“Keep Democracy Working for Americans.” Sure, we could have said “for America,” but America is a concept. “Americans” are living, breathing, human beings who are trying to live, work, and make a better life for their kids. We want our ads to be focused on the real lives of real Americans. We want our ads to say that democracy means that the majority of Americans should rule… and that means that our laws on social issues should reflect the will of a majority of Americans.

Biden must run ads that communicate the facts on social issues:

First and foremost: the majority of Americans want to restore reproductive rights – and do not want Trump and the GOP, who engineered the reversal of Roe and who will ban abortion nationally.

The majority of Americans want progress on climate legislation – not a GOP that will “drill baby drill” and destroy our planet for our grandchildren.

The majority of Americans want smart gun laws that will keep schoolchildren, shoppers, and crowds safe from AR-15 assault rifles.

The majority of Americans do not want our country to retreat to isolation from the world stage. The majority of Americans want to continue to support Ukraine.

The majority of Americans want what Democrats stand for. Democracy means that we are governed by the will of the people. We must keep democracy working for Americans.

Our tagline would work well as the last line in every commercial, every political rally, every fundraising email that is focused on these three themes. It is what ties everything together, unifies the different messages, and gives Democrats a simply, single, memorable line that explains why Joe Biden should be re-elected.

Maybe my idea is not the best possible tagline… and if you have a better idea, let’s hear it.

But we need that single, powerful statement of who we are, and why Joe Biden must win, and Donald Trump must lose.  

We need a slogan that we can put on a blue hat that can go on millions of heads across the nation.

Because given the horrific authoritarian alternative in this election, we must do everything we can do to win.

We must keep democracy working for Americans.


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